The Novelty of the Personal Relationship with Jesus

The Novelty of the Personal Relationship with Jesus August 13, 2016

I was asked on Reddit about a topic that I blogged about at some point in the past, but not finding the post in question, I thought I would revisit the topic. The phrases “personal relationship with Jesus” and “personal savior” are not only not found in the Bible, but are much more recent than that. Here is what Joel Miller discovered by performing an ngram to see how frequently the phrases appear in books (HT Scot McKnight):

Here’s some of what Miller wrote in commenting about the above graph:

C. S. Lewis said in his preface to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation that we tend to think like our contemporaries. In The Discarded Image he provided the historical example of early medieval pagans and Christians being difficult to distinguish; in many ways, they were more alike than different.

It’s the same with us. We can claim to be set apart and that our faith keeps us grounded, but what if our “personal” relationship with Jesus is just flailing in our self-centered cultural currents while we’re unaware of the pull?

Given that, I don’t trust a personal relationship with Jesus. An ecclesial relationship is better.

Let’s go back to those Pharisees. They didn’t get bogged down in legalism because they ignored a personal relationship with Jesus—an anachronistic and wrongheaded concept to begin with. If we follow Jesus’ parable of the tax collector, we know they got in trouble because of pride and self-satisfaction. We need to be careful that our so-called personal relationships aren’t the same thing in disguise.

Of related interest, this quote from Rich Mullins came my way on Facebook a few days ago:

You guys are all into that born again thing — which is great. We do need to be born again since Jesus said that to a guy named Nicodemus. But if you tell me I have to be born again to enter the kingdom of God, I can tell you that you just have to sell everything you have and give it to the poor because Jesus said that to one guy too. But I guess that’s why God invented highlighters, so we can highlight the parts we like and ignore the rest.

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  • Phil Ledgerwood

    In the same genre, asking Jesus to come into your heart.

  • arcseconds

    no discussion of a personal relationship with Jesus is complete without Depreche Mode:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u1xrNaTO1bI

    • The Marilyn Mason cover is interesting as well.

  • Iain Lovejoy

    What the prophets had, and what Jesus himself had, and what the pharisees lacked was a personal relationship with God – an ability to listen and respond to what God is saying now, rather than simply following the letter of ancient rules. From a strict trinitarian point of view the God who you can directly experience at your side would be the holy spirit, the “paraclete” (literally the “one at the side”) rather than Jesus.
    If the difference matters, it is because “Jesus” refers to an actual person and imagined conversations with our own conception of that person can substitute for listening out for prompting from the spirit of God moving through creation and ourselves, and we can end up ignoring what the actual Jesus really did say in favour of what we imagine our idea of him might say (because our “relationship” means we obviously know).

  • Christine

    The other alternative is to stop talking to imaginary friends.

  • While the phrase or concept may be “modern,” the saints and mystics throughout church history have shared that experience, expressed in different ways. Of course they risked being accused of heresy, because a “personal relationship” with God challenges the concept of the church hierarchy as the only means whereby sinners can approach the Divine.

    • Alan Christensen

      The concept can be abused, but I think the idea of a personal relationship with God (through the Holy Spirit’s presence in and with us) is Biblical even though the phrase isn’t–much like “Trinity.” Prof. McGrath is right to point out, though, that our relationship is not only with God individually but also collectively as communities of faith (see the quote from Joel Miller).

      • Were you replying to me or did your comment get posted under mine accidentally? I don’t disagree with you but I was simply talking about the historical context.

        • Alan Christensen

          I meant to reply to your comment above beginning “Like I said…”.

          • oh, ok, thanks! I was just wondering because my comment did not address whether the concept was “biblical” or that it was individual versus collective, so I thought maybe you were replying to somebody else. With regard to “collective,” I agree except I would specify the “community of faith” refers to the Church Universal, i.e. the mystical body of all believers, as opposed to the institutional churches, the latter being the arbiters of heresy historically.

            Oh no, wait – I just noticed that my “Like I said…” comment was posted AFTER your comment in question, so you must have actually been referring to my previous comment, “While the phrase or concept may be modern…” In any case, I appreciate your reply.

    • Thanks for this comment. You make an important point, although I would want to qualify it by highlighting that the mystics of the pre-modern era often emphasized not only personal experience of the divine, but also God’s ineffability, and so anything they would have called a “personal relationship with God” would have been tempered with a strong sense of divine transcendence, and thus would not have been expressed in the “Jesus is my buddy” language one gets in the United States in the modern era.

      • Like I said, “expressed in different ways.” Divine intimacy and transcendence are not mutually exclusive. That’s the cool thing about belonging to one of the few religions (to include, e.g. Hinduism) in which the ineffable Divine incarnates as a Person in order to interact with us as persons. The mystics each understood this in their own way.

      • Here is a delightful example of what I am talking about, Thomas A’ Kempis, “My Imitation of Christ” from the early 1400s. In this section on Holy Communion, Book IV, Ch. 3, v. 4 he expresses both awe and profound intimacy:

        “4. Oh wonderful condescension of Thy pity surrounding us, that
        Thou, O Lord God, Creator and Quickener of all spirits, deignest
        to come unto a soul so poor and weak, and to appease its hunger
        with Thy whole Deity and Humanity. Oh happy mind and blessed
        soul, to which is granted devoutly to receive Thee its Lord God,
        and in so receiving Thee to be filled with all spiritual joy! Oh
        how great a Lord doth it entertain, how beloved a Guest doth it
        bring in, how delightful a Companion doth it receive, how
        faithful a Friend doth it welcome, how beautiful and exalted a
        Spouse, above every other Beloved, doth it embrace, One to be
        loved above all things that can be desired! Oh my most sweet
        Beloved, let heaven and earth and all the glory of them, be
        silent in Thy presence; seeing whatsoever praise and beauty they
        have it is of Thy gracious bounty; and they shall never reach
        unto the loveliness of Thy Name, Whose Wisdom is infinite.”

  • Timothy Hans Kurnia

    I have difficulty understanding why the blog doesn’t agree with the concept of having God as a personal Friend…

    • I have difficulty understanding why this comment simply assumes that because something is a later invention, it must therefore be incorrect. I also note the jump from data about Jesus to assertions about God on your part.

      But I certainly do think that the modern American notion of God and/or Jesus as one’s buddy misses a lot that was historically present in not only Christian but most thinking about God – awe, transcendence, etc.

      Does that help you understand any more clearly?

      • Timothy Hans Kurnia

        I see I see.. Yes it does.. Then what’s your take on this?

        Oh, uh, I didn’t mean to flame or anything, sorry if I sounded harsh on the first post… 😀

        • I think that the modern view of Jesus as friend tends to be individualistic, to mistake imagination for reality, and to lose the strong sense of God’s transcendence that typified mystical experience in the past.

          I also think that there is possible evidence of a disconnect between the claim of conservative Evangelicals to be proclaiming the historic Christian message while using innovative terminology. Of course, sometimes in order to make the same point in a new context, you need to say something different. But it certainly should not simply be assumed that there is a continuity given the evidence for innovation.

          Does that help clarify the points that I thought were worthy of further discussion, exploration, and reflection?

          • jekylldoc

            When I heard about a “personal relationship with Jesus” or God, (going back at least to the 70s, so maybe when it was fairly fresh according to your graph) it was invariably by contrast with religion that one inherited (“What am I? Well, I was raised . . .” Catholic, or Lutheran, or whatever).

            I once had the naivete to ask “how do you relate to someone who can’t be seen or heard?” and my evangelical youth pastor did his best, explaining about praying and reading the Bible and coming to church. It felt a bit like dodging the question to me. The phrase, “personal relationship” is simply a poor choice of words, choosing denial of the difficulties.

            These days one can find (see “When God Talks Back” by Tanya Luhrmann) groups who actively encourage the kind of intense prayer which generates altered states of consciousness. The Vineyard, which she studied, tells people to set a place at their breakfast table and hold an actual conversation with Jesus, who presumably does not actually drink his own coffee. This is more an outgrowth of the intensity of charismatic worship, in which being “transported” (for lack of a better word) is the evidence of divine agency, than of “personal relationship” theology, which simply asks for active thought and intentional choice.

  • ObscurelyAgnostic

    Is this perhaps a ‘straw man’ because there is no one-size-fits-all personal relationship with Jesus? — e.g., there’s plenty that’s personal for many non-evangelicals when we kneel at the Lord’s Table in the Eucharist …

    • I’m not sure what you think the argument is, or how you think it is a straw man argument. Do you disagree that the terminology is recent as the graph indicates? Are you suggesting that because lots of things have a personal aspect to them, therefore the phrase “personal relationship with Jesus” as used in the modern era fits all of them? Your comment itself seems to be engaging a straw man, but I wonder if that is just because you didn’t take the time to articulate your points clearly and precisely?

      • ObscurelyAgnostic

        Thank you for your prompt reply, Professor. No, I don’t dispute your terminology graph — but other posted comments here have made note of the fact your claim goes well beyond the simple unsurprising fact of the graph. I use ‘straw man’ in a generic/colloquial sense (vs logical fallacy) because you make a further indirect claim with this quote from Mr. Miller: “We can claim to be set apart and that our faith keeps us grounded, but what if our ‘personal’ relationship with Jesus is just flailing in our self-centered cultural currents while we’re unaware of the pull?” You also include a Facebook quote that further impugns born-again Christians. Since your implicit ‘target’ is apparently the naive faith of born-again/evangelical Christians, I was giving a specific non-evangelical example (vs ‘lots of things’ as you put it) of a Eucharistic ‘personal relationship’ with the Risen Christ that goes all the way back to the Last Supper. (Please note I am not an evangelical.)

        • Thanks for the clarification. I’m still puzzled, though. I don’t think that anyone would claim that the original disciples who ate with Jesus did not have a “personal relationship” with Jesus. But in what sense, if any, is participating in the Eucharist akin to what is normally meant by “personal relationship”?

          • ObscurelyAgnostic

            Excellent question — I’m not sure what place in your own faith tradition the Eucharist/Communion occupies theologically, but in my Anglican faith and other sacramental Churches we believe that Jesus is truly and personally present at His own Table in the Eucharist … although not all would deem receiving the Sacrament a ‘personal relationship’ with the Risen Lord, many do take very seriously and/or literally the formulations, “The Body of our Lord Jesus, broken for you” and “The Blood of our Lord, shed for you.”

          • I understand that. My point is that I think the experience of Eucharist in most Christian traditions, ranging from transubstantiation and highly sacramental to contemporary Evangelical Protestantism, is something very different from the experience of having a meal with Jesus. If a sacramental or mystical connection is what is meant by a “personal relationship” then it can be traced back much earlier under other rubrics – but then the “personal relationship” that most of us have on a daily basis with other humans who are physically present might need a different label, since it is something so very different.

          • ObscurelyAgnostic

            So is that what you understand evangelicals to mean by a ‘personal relationship’ with Jesus — that it’s like what (as you put it) “most of us have on a daily basis with other humans who are physically present”?

          • In my own conservative Evangelical days, I really felt I could relate to the words of the hymn, “He walks with me and he talks with me.” But with hindsight, I would acknowledge that such language fit poorly with what I was actually experiencing. And so the biggest issue I have with the language of “personal relationship” is not that it is a recent innovation (I can often get on board with those), but it seems to not do a very good job of describing the kinds of spirituality that use the language, and more than that, tends to be connected with a kind of spiritual oneupmanship which claims that because of that “personal relationship” one’s own tradition and beliefs are more authentic and correct than those of others – others who sometimes have a very similar experience, and are actually describing it in more appropriate terms.

          • ObscurelyAgnostic

            My own stance as a pastor is to allow people to describe their faith experience in whatever language they find apt — if some who cherish their “personal relationship” with Jesus are guilty of “spiritual oneupmanship,” that doesn’t invalidate the term’s usage for those many who are innocent …